South African company finds economic value in flies and maggots

Most people would struggle to see how flies, maggots and human waste can hold any monetary value. A South African company is, however, envisaging a massive industry.

David Drew

David Drew is the director of AgriProtein Technologies, a company in South Africa with the primary focus of producing an alternative, sustainable protein feed for livestock like pigs and chickens. The solution they offer is magmeal, a protein feed made up of maggots.

Magmeal offers an alternative solution to fishmeal, which has become increasingly expensive and unsustainable in a world where growing populations are leading to increased consumption. “Fishmeal is a great product but it is not very sustainable,” says Drew. “[Globally] 50% of all the fish that we take out of the sea, doesn’t end up on our plates. It goes towards making a thing called fishmeal and fishmeal is a really good animal feed.”

But there are problems with fishmeal, particularly for African farmers and especially with prices going up 5% a month for the past three months according to Drew. Besides the carbon footprint and diesel costs of transporting fishmeal from the coast across Africa, Drew says that the main problem with using fishmeal for small scale farmers in Africa is they cannot rely on a solid supply chain.

“What that means is if you take an inland farmer in Zim, or in Zambia, or in the Congo, their fish meal has to come from the sea and they are a hell of a long way from the sea. Because it is Africa, people can’t afford to keep large store houses. That’s just not how the continent works, unlike America … So I think one thing that is really key is that it’s alleviating the fear of that supply chain because one of the beauties of magmeal is that you produce it where it’s needed,” says Drew.

So how is magmeal made? It starts with a fly cage full of flies, which Drew and his colleagues have researched how to mate and collect the eggs at an industrial level. “It takes about four days for us to collect eggs out of flies that have just emerged from their pupae. We collect the eggs, we hatch the eggs over night in an incubator and then we lay them out on a food source,” explains Drew. “Three days later the larvae (or maggots) weigh 280 times more than they did three days before … then we harvest them and we then have buckets and buckets of wriggling larvae and those larvae are then dried and turned into a meal and it is as easy as that. The whole process is about 10-12 days long and it’s really easy to do at small-scale.”

Food sources for the larvae include abattoir blood, which Drew and his team currently use in the magmeal production process. However, they are researching the use of human faeces to produce larvae as part of an environmental programme commissioned under the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

A single female fly can lay 1,000 eggs per week.

“One of the things that we are putting together is a domestic unit that people can use in poor areas to generate income from making larvae to produce chickens for them to sell,” continues Drew. “And for the back of rich people’s kitchens to make them feel good that they are recycling their kitchen waste in a nice little thing called the bug barrel, which is like a sort of worm bin, but on steroids.”

AgriProtein Technologies has also partnered with Sanergy, a Kenyan sanitation and waste removal company that distributes toilets to local entrepreneurs to rent out in slums. The human waste collected from this can then be sold as a food source for the larvae. Drew says this can then be used to produce two and a half products. The first being the maggots that can be sold as a protein feed, and the second is a soil conditioner, which is not as effective as fertiliser, but is nevertheless useful in farming. The “half product” refers to a larvae oil that can be extracted from maggots. Drew says it is similar to linseed and can be used as a heating oil, among other things. However, the extraction process has not been perfected, and it remains a half product in Drew’s opinion.

“The protein feed industry for animals is a US$70 billion industry a year,” says Drew. “We don’t in any way expect to be the industry replacement as a company. We would like to kick-start a new industry and exist alongside it. For us to be a player in that new industry would be great. Many people will come and copy what we have started and that is fine. We welcome that because they will help us roll out across the world. Will it be competition? Yes, but the market is so vast that it will be a long time till we are treading on each other’s toes.”

In spite of the environmental and economic opportunities maggot farming holds, Drew says he is being very cautious. “We are taking our time to industrialise and commercialise that process of fly laying as you have to be fairly careful on our planet when you start to industrialise things because you can really bugger things up really seriously, as they did in the early days with chicken production and cow production.”

However, the opportunities maggot farming holds for African poultry and pig farmers cannot be ignored. With production costs relatively low, magmeal can be a cheap alternative for fishmeal on the continent. Drew, with an entrepreneurial mind, also pointed out that maggots, while feeding, can produce temperature of up to 45 degrees by themselves. “We could run heating pipes through our maggots to heat our water,” adds Drew, highlighting just another potential use of maggots.